HAMMURIYEH: New air strikes and barrel bombs pounded Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Sunday as government forces pressed a three-week advance that splintered the rebel enclave and trapped dozens under collapsed buildings.
Defying global calls for a ceasefire, Syria's government has pursued a ferocious Russian-backed air campaign and ground offensive to capture the region, the last rebel bastion on the capital's doorstep.
In three weeks of fighting, it has overrun more than half the area and split the remainder into three pockets, isolating the urban hub of Douma from the rest of the enclave.
On Sunday, government troops battered the edges of each pocket with air raids, barrel bombs, and rockets, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
In the evening they focused their fire on Harasta, hitting it with 18 air strikes including barrel bombs, it added.
After fighting all morning, they captured the town of Medeira, which lies at the heart of the three zones, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
State news agency SANA had reported troops were focusing on the town in order to cut rebel access routes in Ghouta.
Bombing runs across several towns in Ghouta killed 23 civilians on Sunday, bringing the total toll from the offensive to at least 1,139 civilians, including 240 children, the Observatory said.
They include dozens of decomposing bodies still trapped under pulverised residential blocks in the towns of Hammuriyeh, Saqba, and Misraba.
In Hammuriyeh, AFP's correspondent saw a young man scrambling frantically over the rubble of a collapsed building in search of his loved ones.
His father, mother, and three siblings were killed in an air raid, but rescue workers have been unable to pull them out.
- Bodies pile up -
Hassaan, a 30-year-old rescue worker, said there were around 20 more families under the rubble.
"We need heavy machinery to get them out, but we can't bring the machines out into the streets because the regime may bomb them," he said.
In the main town of Douma, 17 bodies were pulled from the rubble Sunday evening, according to SOHR, adding to the corpses piling up in the morgue as bombardment prevented families from reaching the cemetery, AFP correspondents there said.
Families grew desperate for news of loved ones who had fled to other areas that were now inaccessible.
On Saturday, Syrian troops and allied militia cut off the main road leading out of Douma in a major blow to beleaguered rebels attempting to defend their enclave.
Government forces also captured the town of Misraba.
Some residents fled from the advancing troops, but dozens stayed as soldiers recaptured their neighbourhoods.
SANA reported on Sunday that troops transported "dozens of civilians, including women and children" from Misraba to temporary shelters in government-held zones.
The Observatory told AFP that Misraba was left abandoned after 75 to 100 people were moved out of the town by regime forces.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is keen to recapture Eastern Ghouta from rebels, who have used the region as a launch pad for attacks on the capital.
On Sunday, four people were killed and six wounded in rebel rocket fire on a government-controlled district in eastern Damascus, state television reported.
It broadcast live footage from the battered skyline of Medeira, saying Sunday's gains linked Syrian soldiers advancing from the east with troops based on the western edges of Ghouta.
- Officials mull evacuation -
In recent years, government forces have recaptured several areas around Damascus and other parts of war-ravaged Syria from rebels by pursuing fierce military offensives culminating in evacuation deals.
A delegation representing Hammuriyeh residents were on Sunday considering such an agreement after talks with the regime, a negotiator and the Observatory told AFP.
The delegation met government representatives on Saturday and discussed a proposal that would offer safe passage to rebels and civilians who want to leave, one of its members said.
"The committee is meeting on Sunday to take a decision and inform the regime," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Observatory confirmed talks were taking place on Hammuriyeh as well as the towns of Jisreen and Saqba.
The two main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta have firmly and repeatedly denied negotiating with the Syrian regime.
Faylaq al-Rahman, the opposition faction that holds Hammuriyeh, insisted late Saturday there were "no direct or indirect negotiations" on an evacuation.
Eastern Ghouta is home to around 400,000 people living under a crippling government siege since 2013.
The United Nations has demanded a month-long ceasefire there to allow for aid to be brought in and for desperately sick and wounded civilians to receive treatment.
Syria's regime has also been accused of using chlorine gas against civilians in Eastern Ghouta in recent weeks.
On Sunday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis warned it would be "very unwise" for Assad to use weaponised gas against civilians, but declined to say whether doing so would trigger a US military response.